Is Sweeney Todd a real man or a fictional character based on legend and myth
DID SWEENEY TODD EXIST THE FACTS
Sweeney Todd with his catch phrase "I polish 'em off," is a man who needs no introduction, he is a one of the most established figures of crime fiction, he has played the staring roles in films, books and musicals and with Tim Burtons new Film starring Johnny Depp as the notorious villain himself his popularity remains undiminished.
In 1785 when Todd's premises were searched supposedly enough property and clothing was found to indicate there had been at least 160 victims making him to this day one of the world's most prolific serial killers, however oddly the facts about his case are remarkably poorly documented, both in terms of newspaper reports and court documents.
At the time there should have been extensive transcripts recorded by clerks of any case brought before a court, it is after all the founding of our present legal system. The fact that there is no such transcripts concerning Sweeney Todd makes the part of his saga where after being caught he was brought before a magistrate who sentenced him to hang, is almost certainly untrue, if he did exist he didn't meet his end at the gallows.
There is also no record of him being sent to Newgate prison as a teenager. Further more the only newspaper of the day which mentions anything resembling him by name was the 'Newgate calendar' the Newgate Calendar wasn't a newspaper to be trusted, many of its stories were exaggerated or simply fictitious, the other newspapers at the time never run any stories concerning our demon barber, this is unusual, the newspapers at the time would have been expected to pick up such a sensational story and run with it as they did with other villains, turning the likes of Dick Turpin, Captain Kidd, Jack Sheppard the great escaper, James Mclean the highwayman and Jonathan Wild Prince of Thieves into the celebrities of their day. All of the aforementioned criminals have been proven to have been real people and presently all are less famous than Todd is today, in fact the most comparable criminal to Sweeney Todd is Jack the ripper a man who was never caught leaving a mystery which like Todd leaves room for the imagination to fill in the gaps.
However not all the evidence points to him being a fictional character. In an account published about the middle of the 18th century and unearthed and reprinted in 1956 in 'The Story Pages Collector' states that several bodies were found buried under the floor of a cellar in an empty shop by a team of builders, that shop happened to be 186 Fleet Street the very address accredited to Sweeney Todd. The account goes on to state that the previous owner has been a barber named Sweeney Todd who was deceased. I'm aware that this evidence on its own doesn't conclusively prove his existence on its own, but it may shed light on why there is no documented transcripts of Sweeney Todd's trial, the bodies were found after Todd's death and you cant try a dead man.
In addition, research unearthed by the historian O.G. Lofts says that in the 1880s some of the old buildings in Fleet Street were demolished and under 186 Fleet Street a pit of bones was unearthed, at the time the bones were attributed to the nearby St Dunstable Church, but why were they found so far away from the church.
What is evident and we do know to be true is that there was and in some places still are a network of tunnels passage ways and cellars that with modification could have been used to connect the church's catacombs with 186 Fleet Street and Bells Yard, these underground passageways were so crucial to the story and which Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett made so much use of.
Also of interest, at the time London like the rest of the country had no police force, in fact we were one of the last countries in Europe to have one, any previous attempt to form one had seemed an infringement on civil liberties and something un-English, what Londoners of this area did have however were Bow Street Runners, named after the house in Bow Street where their chief resided, they had no uniform or salary, their wage simply was a share of any rewards, fine or fees they imposed and presumably any bribes they could get. The Bow Street Runners did keep records of there investigations and cases they dealt with, these would be invaluable if they still existed, unfortunately when they were replaced and made way for a more modern police force regrettably their records were destroyed including if they existed those concerning Sweeney Todd.
Did Sweeney Todd exist, my suspicion is that he didn't, but it is impossible to say for sure, I would like to say like almost everything that has been written about the man 'based on actual authentic events' but the truth is I simply don't know. Whether the stories are based on a composite figure which was made by combining the motives and modes of murder of many villains and killers is however certainly tenable.